Scrivener and your PhD supervisor: how to share thesis chapters and integrate feedback

I’ve been asked lot of questions about Scrivener over the years. Can you really write your thesis using it? [Spoiler: yes] Does it work with citation software? [Again, yes]. But if I was in the habit of keeping a list of most frequently asked questions (alas, I’m not), we would have a winner. Turns out people are really interested in how I send drafts of my PhD thesis chapters to my supervisors, and how I integrate their comments into my work.

Never one to disappoint, here we have it: a full blog post on sharing chapters with my supervisors and making changes based on their feedback.

Only, and I need to say this right from the start, this may not quite be what you’re expecting. I’ve seen some fantastic and no doubt hugely efficient workflows on the Scrivener forum. This one is particularly spectacular. But when I read the guidance that’s out there, I’m struck by how complex it all seems. To be fair, it probably isn’t when it’s your own workflow, but I tend to stop reading by number 8 in a list of 20 actions. So, what you’re about to read is categorically not the most logical or systematic way of dealing with this tricky topic. But it is how I’ve found a way (albeit a messy, suck it and see way) through the mire.

Sending chapters to my supervisors

My wonderful supervisors work in Word. I also work in Word for some things. Sometimes I just like to write in Word to remind me how much I like Scrivener. I digress…

I like my supervisors very much. I want to make their lives as easy as possible. Because sometimes I send them two chapters at a time and cringe as I press the send button. And they read said chapters and give me excellent encouraging feedback that challenges me to make my stuff better. So I’m not going to send them a Scrivener file they can’t read. That would just be rude.

Here’s what I do.

First, I get the chapter into the best possible place. I work and work on it in Scrivener. I make sure my EndNote citations are all present and correct. I check spelling. I know some people like to send early drafts to supervisors, but my personal preference is to have a chat with my supervisors about the chapter early on and incorporate our discussions into the initial draft in Scrivener. I have some perfectionist qualities about me, so it also makes me highly uncomfortable if I think I’m sharing work that isn’t anywhere where I want it to be. I also like to move sections around a lot. When I was 18 my A Level History teacher told me I didn’t understand structure. She had a point.

When I’m happy with my chapter, I press Compile. I then choose to export the Scrivener file into a .rtf Word compatible file. You can use the drop-down box to select alternative options, such as .pdf, but I’ve only ever chosen .rtf. You can choose to compile a particular chapter, but I like to compile the whole document. Then I save the entire document in a separate folder in my university drive, marked ‘if it all goes wrong, here’s some Word version backups you made. Well done you.’ I copy and paste the relevant chapter into a new Word document.

Screenshot 2018-07-20 10.45.28

I check the Word document for any obvious errors and send it to my supervisors. At this point, I want to mention something to all you citation software lovers out there. Please don’t be an idiot like I was with Chapter 4 and get so annoyed with EndNote (or your preferred option) that you commit the cardinal sin of permanently converting to plain text i.e. taking all the codes away forever. I now have a 20,000 word chapter that looks lovely, but no EndNote codes. This means a crappy time for me at the end when I pull all the chapters together. And/or if I’ve made an error with one of my references, this now won’t be instantly updated in Chapter 4 when I correct it in my EndNote library. Keep your codes on, people.

Integrating comments from my supervisors

For the longest time, I assumed I would get comments back from my supervisors and then track change any changes I wanted to make to the chapter back in trusty Scrivener. Turns out my version of Scrivener doesn’t have the track change option, or at least it doesn’t have an option that runs just like the Word version I’m so used to.

I toyed with all sorts of workarounds. I tried using screenshots and importing supervisor drafts into Scrivener. But for me, they all became too complicated. (But great for you if you have more patience than me!). I needed something that worked for me, and was simple enough for me to remember when I came back to the thesis after a break.

So, if I needed to make minor changes I did not go back to Scrivener. I remained working with the Word document I sent back to my supervisors, changing language, maybe adding a few more references in a section, and sorting out some spelling/numbering errors. Chapter 2 only needed minor changes. In Scrivener it remains the first draft evermore. In Word, it’s the final draft.

If I needed to make major changes, I went back to Scrivener. Chapter 4 needed moving around substantially, some new paragraphs in the middle, a new introduction, and a massive new section on analysis at the end. Doing this sort of work in Word made me very sad indeed. I tried it. I hated it. I went back to Scrivener. In Scrivener it’s my final draft. I compiled it and sent the new version to my supervisors. In Word, it’s my final draft.

chapter 2.PNG

Yes, I have a Scrivener file called DLaw thesis that isn’t completely up to date. Chapter 2 is not the final version. Chapters 3 and 4 are. Chapter 5 is in progress. And Chapter 6 is just a collection of ‘stuff’ at the moment.

To be honest, I’ve always felt my DLaw thesis file was more of a dumping ground for my thoughts on my doctoral study. I have a really odd folder called ‘Extras’ that has the most random thoughts in it. But I like that I can look in the folders and get inspiration for abstracts for conferences, or papers I’m writing. I know it isn’t the finished product, and I don’t want it to be. It’s my digital brain. Not all of it will make it into the final, all pulled together, singing and possibly dancing Word document I submit to the Grad School. And that’s okay. Don’t worry too much about finding the ‘right’ process. Find the way that works for you and your supervisors.

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4 thoughts

  1. Your Scrivener advice is The Best. I started using Scrivener … that is, I downloaded Scrivener years ago, but it was just too complicated to be useful quickly, and I found myself trudging back to Word over and over, knowing that Scrivener was really the better tool. On one of my many google searches for practical answers I found your blog and using your tips and techniques, over the past year I was able to complete a large research manuscript for publication. I ran into the same difficulties when it came to sharing the file for comments and corrections (switching from Scrivener to Word to Scrivener), and found the best path was exactly the one you described in this post. So Thank you for sharing your Scrivener journey in such a friendly, comprehensible, and useful way.

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    1. What a lovely message! Thanks so much 🙂 I’m really glad you find the posts helpful! I appreciate people might be expecting a fancy ‘workaround’, so I was a little worried about putting this one up. But hurray for us both doing the same thing!

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  2. Thanks for the useful tips. I’m mid way through my PhD in law and switched from Word to Scrivener about 12 months ago mostly because of the ease of moving sections around. I ended up adopting a similar process to you where I do all my first and second drafts in Scrivener and then have final Word chapters sent to my supervisors. I just mark which draft I’m on in the metadata for each chapter (outline view I think it’s called). Do you use Keyboard Maestro to automate processes in Scrivener? I created an automation where if I type a certain combination of letters it inserts a footnote into Scrivener, saved me a lot of time with over 1000 footnotes!
    Thanks for the great blog!

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    1. Thanks Jason! I do use some shortcuts in Scrivener but mainly to stop myself having to type ‘autoethnography’ or ‘autoethnographic’ in full every two seconds! I’m curious how you know which footnotes are needed ahead of time?

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